10 British Things About Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, Jan. 8, 1864, in a photo by Mathew Brady (Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln, Jan. 8, 1864, in a photo by Mathew Brady (Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln and the British? Surely these folks at Anglophenia must be joking, you must be thinking to yourself.

After all, what does a Kentucky-born, rail-splitting, country lawyer who never once traveled outside the United States have to do with England?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Lincoln had many relationships with Britain and with things British, and his deft diplomatic dealings with our former colonial masters helped the North to win the war.

With BBC AMERICA’s Copper depicting 1860s New York on the brink of Lincoln’s assassination, take a look at 10 British things about “Honest Abe.” Let’s start at the top, sort of literally.

1. Lincoln’s Famous Stovepipe Hat

Lincoln may have bought his famous hat from a Washington hatter, but it was an English hat maker who designed the original style in the late eighteenth century.

When John Hetherington first wore his own creation on London streets in 1797, the new look so shook up observers that Hetherington was arrested and fined for disturbing the peace. A police chief claimed that “people booed, several women fainted and a small boy got his arm broken,” and a law was even passed against wearing top hats like Hetherington’s.

The style, however, was to become widely accepted, and Lincoln’s contribution was to push it to new heights, encouraging his hatter to make his hats as tall as possible. He had one that was 13-inches high, almost twice the height of an average top hat. Lincoln used his hats to store important papers.

Lincoln's hat at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History (Google)

Lincoln’s hat at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History (Google)

In August 1864, just a little more than half a year before he was assassinated, Lincoln was fired on by a sniper as he rode down a street. He reportedly made light of the incident, but afterwards his stovetop hat was discovered — with a bullet hole in it.

Today, the hat Lincoln wore on the night of his assassination is on display at the Smithsonian.

2. Lincoln’s Beard

Lincoln was the nation’s first president to sport a beard, and while it was uncommon for American politicians to have beards, things were just the opposite in England. Although it’s well-known that Lincoln grew his beard at the urging of an 11-year-old girl who wrote to him, beards were at the same time undergoing a surge in popularity in Victorian England, where they were seen as a sign of masculinity.

Lincoln, in a photo taken by Alexander Gardner in Nov. 1863 (Library of Congress)

Lincoln, in a photo taken by Alexander Gardner in Nov. 1863 (Library of Congress)

3. ‘Despatch No. 10’

One of Lincoln’s key goals during the Civil War was to keep England from supporting the South. Little more than a month after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Queen Victoria declared Britain’s position of neutrality, which appeared to be a first step towards British recognition of the Confederacy.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, flew into a rage and drafted an incendiary letter for the U.S. ambassador to deliver to Britain’s foreign secretary.

“God damn ‘em,” Seward said at the time. “I’ll give ‘em hell.”

Lincoln, however, knew that the U.S. was in no position to give the British Empire hell. Instead, he proposed a series of judicious edits and instructed that the letter not be shown to anyone other than the U.S. ambassador, who should use it for personal guidance.

Lincoln’s version of the letter mostly substituted carrots for sticks and made the point that any tensions would arise from “the action of Great Britain, not our own” and that any steps taken to “fraternize with our domestic enemy” would lose “the sympathies and the affections of the only nation on whose sympathies and affections she has a natural claim.”

Lincoln successfully avoided the prospect of the North fighting two wars at the same time, but the “Despatch No. 10” incident foreshadowed what was potentially an even greater crisis in relations with England a little more than a half year later. (See No. 6, below.)

4. Edinburgh, Scotland

The first foreign statue of Lincoln was unveiled in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1893, to honor Scottish-American soldiers. The sculptor was George Edwin Bissell, an American who served as a private in the 23rd Connecticut Volunteers in the Civil War. The statue is the only monument to American Civil War soldiers outside the U.S.

The Scottish – American Soldiers Monument in Edinburgh, Scotland. The statue of Lincoln is by George E. Bissell. (Ad Meskens)

The Scottish – American Soldiers Monument in Edinburgh, Scotland. The statue of Lincoln is by George E. Bissell. (Ad Meskens)

5. Tea With the Lincolns

Mary Todd Lincoln sometimes sent her sons to Abe’s law office to fetch him home for afternoon tea.

6. The Trent Affair

In November 1861, off the coast of Cuba, a Union captain boarded the Trent, a British mail ship, which was two Southern emissaries headed to England to convince the British to help the Confederate cause. The captain brought the two to Boston, where they were thrown into a military prison.

A page from Harpers describing the Trent incident

A page from Harpers describing the Trent incident

The British government saw the action as a violation of England’s sovereignty. Tensions were high on both sides of the Atlantic. Some Lincoln advisers advocated standing up to the British, arguing that the superpower wouldn’t go to war over two Southern diplomats.

Lincoln said he wasn’t so sure, and offered one of his folksy stories about a vicious bulldog to illustrate his point. A wise man, he said, looks at the situation this way: “I know the bulldog will not bite. You know he will not bite. But does the bulldog know he will not bite?”

Thinking that England could very well be the bulldog that bites back, this time it was Seward, now convinced of Lincoln’s diplomatic approach, who came up with a solution that involved handing the prisoners over to the British, thus averting another crisis.

Returning the Confederate prisoners, Lincoln told General Ulysses Grant three years later, “was a pretty bitter pill to swallow.” But, he added, in a scene described by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, that the incident would be “short-lived” and that “after ending our war successfully we would be so powerful that we could call her to account for all the embarrassments she had inflicted upon us.”

And then, in familiar Lincoln style, he once again made the point in story form. An old sick man, at death’s doorstep, is advised to make peace with his enemies in the very short time he has left, so he calls the person he hates the most, a man named Brown, to his bedside.

“After a parting that would have softened the heart of a grindstone,” said Lincoln. “Brown had about reached the room door when the sick man called out to him: ‘But see here, Brown; if I should happen to get well, mind, that old grudge stands.’”

Then Lincoln made the political parallel explicit: “I thought that if this nation should happen to get well, we might want that old grudge against England to stand,” he said.

7. A British Colony for Freed Slaves

Lincoln controversially sought to create special colonies for freed slaves, and he turned several times to England for help. In a book published in 2011, two researchers at George Mason University presented evidence they uncovered at the British National Archives that Lincoln had engaged in secret negotiations in 1862 with the English to set up a colony in British Honduras (now Belize). In 1863, Lincoln issued an order to a British agent encouraging him to recruit volunteers.

8. Shakespeare

Lincoln loved poets like Lord Byron and Robert Burns. His favorite poem was “Mortality” by the less well-known Scottish poet William Knox. But after the Bible, Shakespeare was probably the greatest literary influence on Lincoln. His son Robert wrote that his father constantly carried a copy of the Bard’s plays around the White House, and, although there are few direct Shakespearean references in his writings and speeches, Lincoln frequently recited passages and scenes from memory.

After inviting an actor who had played Falstaff to White House for an in-depth conversation about Shakespeare, Lincoln wrote to him: “Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader.” Among the ones he knew extremely well were King Lear, Richard III and Hamlet. But, he wrote, “I think nothing equals Macbeth.” Not long before his assassination, he had a dream that he wandered through dark halls of the White House, where he came across his own coffin. He said the dream “haunted me. Somehow the thing has got possession of me, and like Banquo’s ghost, it will not let go.”

Ironically, Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was himself a Shakespearean actor.

9. England’s Working Class

After the Emancipation Proclamation, spontaneous demonstrations of encouragement arose all over England. The city of Manchester, for example, voted to boycott Southern cotton, and Lincoln responded by writing an open letter, “To the Working-Men of Manchester,” in which he said that he “deeply deplore[d] the sufferings” of the city’s workers of as a result of the war.

Statue honoring Abraham Lincoln by George Gray Barnard in Manchester, England (geograph.org.uk)

Statue honoring Abraham Lincoln by George Gray Barnard in Manchester, England (geograph.org.uk)

He praised the city for its heroism, and offered his hope for the future, writing: “whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exist between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.”

10. Daniel-Day Lewis

British actor Daniel Day-Lewis played our 16th president — and won an Academy award for it — in Steven Spielberg‘s movie Lincoln last year.